N.Y. governor drops illegals’ licenses plan after public uproar
New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer on Nov. 14 scrapped his plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he expects the governor to still live up to his agreement to adopt Real ID standards for regular licenses.
“You don’t need a stethoscope to hear the heartbeat of the public on this,” Mr. Spitzer told reporters in Washington in announcing that he was retreating, just six weeks after he announced that New York would join the eight other states that already issue licenses to illegal aliens. He blamed his failure on President Bush, saying the federal government has failed to enforce the law and poisoned the issue by also failing to legalize illegal aliens.
But even as Mr. Spitzer sought to bury the damaging issue, Mr. Chertoff made sure that it won’t go away. He insisted that the governor live up to the agreement that they signed last month to make all New York driver’s licenses meet the standards of the 2005 Real ID Act, which include stricter identity checks and counterfeit-proof measures.
“We obviously never agreed with the idea of giving illegals driver’s licenses, and so we welcome New York’s decision to abandon moving forward on that,” he told The Washington Times in a telephone interview from London. “As far as Real ID, we were pleased New York signed the agreement to move forward with that. The agreement is still in force.”
Asked whether that meant he expects Mr Spitzer to stick to the agreement, he said: “Absolutely.”
Mr. Spitzer’s move was an attempt to stop his political bleeding, but the damage has already been done. A Siena Research Institute poll released last week found only 25 percent of New York voters say they would re-elect him now, just a year after he won election.
And the collateral damage has hit others, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who waffled on the issue for two weeks before finally taking a clear stand in opposition to licenses for illegal aliens on Nov. 14.
“As president, I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration, including border security and fixing our broken system,” she said.
Fellow Democrat and presidential hopeful Sen. Christopher J. Dodd pounced on that statement, with his campaign calling it “flipflopping cubed.”
Mr. Dodd opposes the license proposal; while another candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, said he supported the concept. Former Sen. John Edwards appears to be opposed.
Neither Mr. Edwards’ nor Mr. Obama’s campaigns returned calls.
Republicans vowed not to drop the issue, and House Republicans have introduced a bill to crack down on the eight remaining states that still issue licenses or official identification to illegal aliens.
“Senator Clinton may not be able to explain her position on this, but the tens of millions of Americans who expressed outrage over this proposal were abundantly clear: Rewarding illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses is wrong. It defies com- mon sense, and they will not stand for it,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Mr. Spitzer announced that he was backing off his plan in Washington, outside of the Capitol, after meeting with New York’s Democratic congressional delegation.
Many of those Democrats had urged him to shelve the plan two weeks ago, which may have been the final signal for him to retreat. On Nov. 14, they praised Mr. Spitzer for trying.
“This might not have been the exact right plan, but the governor is onto something, and that is that we have to really be attentive and try to solve this problem,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat.
When Mr. Spitzer announced his plan in September, he drew praise from immigrant rights groups who said they had finally found someone willing to lead on an unpopular position. But public opposition was apparent from the start, and Mr. Spitzer negotiated with Mr. Chertoff to try to gain federal support and salvage his plan.
Instead, he lost support from the immigrant rights groups, who say Real ID will result in a loss of civil liberties and discrimination against immigrants. They said Mr. Spitzer’s agreement reversed the momentum, which they said had been running against Real ID, with several states announcing they would opt out.
On Nov. 14, those groups said they expect Mr. Spitzer to now drop his plan for Real ID-compliant licenses.
“The silver lining here is that the governor is also backing off on adopting federal Real ID standards, which pose a serious threat to Americans’ civil liberties,” said ChungWha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition who also criticized Mr. Spitzer for a “lost opportunity” to take leader- ship on the immigration issue.
The agreement can be terminated by either party. A New York government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after being burned by the backlash on licenses, they are taking a step back to evaluate where they stand with Real ID.
“We take this federal mandate very seriously, but this process has shown that we must have a real discussion about this issue,” the official said. “The Legislature and other stakeholders will have to be heard on this matter.”
The official said they are convinced that their existing licenses are already secure “because we have been told that we will already be one of several states that are close to meeting federal requirements when they finally come out.”
The official also said Mr. Spitzer will proceed with an enhanced license, which would meet the requirements for valid passportlike identification for overseas travelers.
In their October agreement, Mr. Spitzer committed to issuing three types of licenses: the enhanced one, which would allow cross-border travel; the one for illegal aliens, which would have been marked as unusable for federal purposes; and the regular license, which would have been available only to those in the country legally and would have met the new security requirements of Real ID.
Mr. Chertoff said that Real ID remains alive and that its opponents are engaged in “delusional thinking” by claiming it is dead. He said the burden is on opponents to explain why more secure licenses is a bad thing.
“There is no constitutional right to pretend to be somebody else; there is no constitutional right to counterfeit licenses,” he said.
Hearing the ‘heartbeat’: The federal government still expects Gov. Eliot Spitzer to make N.Y. driver’s licenses meet Real ID standards.